As it turned out, Les had been out on the last day of a three day fly fishing trip with an old client of his. They had spent the whole time in his canoe poling down the river catching trout and salmon. The weather had been cooperative until today with no overcast and hot sun. Les was in very good spirits because he had found some chanterelle mushrooms near one of the campsites. These were his favorite mushrooms next to the oyster and hen of the woods. He showed John other species in his trusty wild edibles book, along with the chanterelle look-a-like, the jack-o-lantern, which is extremely poisonous. The Maine woods are full of delicious wild edibles if you know what to look for, but it takes years of experience to become competent when identifying things like mushrooms.
John put his prize northern pike in the sink and removed his leather belt he had used to carry it. Les’s reaction was similar concerning the invasive fish and the damage it was causing to the future of fishing as we know it. The DIF&W (Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) had proposed catch and kill pike tournaments to help get rid of them altogether, but Les was convinced it would be impossible to completely eliminate northern pike from the rivers once they established a population. As it stands now, they can only make it to the dams like other fish and those are whats known as “choking points” but eventually they will infest all of the rivers. There were plans in the works for more fish ladders which enabled salmon and trout to move around dams and get further up river to spawning grounds and other habitats but that meant the pike could do the same thing. The only difference is that salmon aren’t spawning like they used to hundreds of years ago, while the pike can live and reproduce just fine and feed on trout and salmon.
Les was making the evening pot of coffee while John was trying to figure out how to cut up his fish. “So why can’t the salmon spawn like they used to? The rivers are cleaner now and they stock them every year.” John asked. “Well there is more to it than just cleaning up rivers and stocking fresh fish. A-lot of things have changed in the years since salmon where born in these rivers and returned years later to reproduce.” John seemed puzzled with this. “Yeah but the rivers are cleaned up, and if they are able to bypass the dams they should be able to spawn. Right?” Les lit the burner under the coffee pot and fanned out the wooden match. “Its just not that simple, John. You see many things have changed, not only the rivers but where the Atlantic salmon go the rest of the year. Out in the ocean they feed on capelin, and the capelin feed on zooplankton. The zooplankton gets pushed around with the changing water temperature, which is slowly rising, and one food source follows the other, and so on.” “What’s a capelin?” John asked. “Its basically a smelt. They are a major food source for lots of ocean fish including cod.” “Really.” John said. “Yeah really, you see so much depends on water temperature. There are studies that have proven the salmon could never reinhabit the same waters they once flourished in because of warmer water at sea.” “So your saying the bait fish in the ocean move to other locations based on temperature?” “That’s exactly right. Even the young salmon put in the rivers that swim out to sea rarely return. Many people think their migration routes are changing based on their food source. The upside is that the lobster population booms when those predator fish like cod are feeding someplace else. The down side is, that without the efforts of hatchery re-stocking programs, you probably wouldn’t see many salmon in these rivers, and the pike only add insult to injury.” “That almost makes it sound like the whole recreational fishing industry is contrived.” Les half smiled as he turned the burner off under the boiling coffee. “I think you understand more than you realize, John. The world runs off the economy and the economy is supported by people spending money doing what they enjoy. The fishing business is no exception; people buy fishing equipment, boats, licences, build camps and go on trips all to catch fish. The fish are raised and allocated by the state and become a resource. Those resources are protected by laws, and the wardens enforce the laws. Its really quite simple; like one food source following the other.” “Well if you put it like that.” “There’s no other way to put it John, its business. Plain and simple.” “So what your saying is, as bad as we screw things up, we can figure a way around it and continue to masquerade as woodsman? Hunters? Fisherman?” Les poured coffee into cups and set them on the table. “Well you could look at it like that, but don’t get too disheartened. There is still adventure to be had out there, and the world loves an original. Although, it is very hard to be an original at anything because it has all been done. We live in an ever changing world and the environment is key part of that. We as woodsman or guides are really just stewards of the wilderness. Our job is to teach and pass on tradition and skills while preserving what we have in front of us. The wilderness certainly isn’t what it was two hundred years ago, but its well worth saving.” John took a sip of coffee and leaned back in the old kitchen chair. “I guess I just imagined it differently. I thought the rivers where full of native fish and the forest was full of wildlife that had never seen a real person.” “Oh the rivers are full of fish and these woods are crawling with critters. But its more like a system of checks and balance, and it works, mostly.” “Do you think if society took the right steps now, this whole imbalance could be repaired and things would eventually go back to the way they were?” John asked. “There are many who feel that way, yes. Is it realistic? Not really. There are also those who believe that we as a society have done such damage to the environment that it could never be reversed. I’m not sure either camp is right, completely.” “One of my college professors talked about how the roads and highways used to be littered with bottles and cans. Then there was a controversial bottle bill passed that put a five cent return on empty beer cans and soda bottles. As the years passed, there were fewer and fewer cans and bottles beside the road.” Les took another sip of coffee and set the cup down. “Anything is controversial as soon as people are being told what to do. However, that is a great example of how we can fix a problem. There are people now who want to put a deposit fee on rubber tires. I think that would stop folks from throwing them in the woods and creating mosquito habitats, thus stopping the spread of disease carrying mosquitoes; not to mention fire hazards and chemical contamination of the soil. If you put a monetary incentive behind an idea, it tends to go over better. The trick is to find a use for those used tires. They have already started making asphalt products with them and there are other plans in the works, but it all takes time and money.” “It seems like it takes little time to create a problem and then it takes forever to fix it.” John said. “It certainly takes longer when it requires pulling money out of someones pocket, that’s for sure.” Les wasn’t telling John anything he didn’t already know. He had seen plenty of examples in his studies of how big business had impacted foreign countries with environmental issues. “So, to get back to the fishing problem, do you think if, miraculously, the whole world straightened out the environmental issues causing water quality and temperature stability, things would return to what salmon feel is normal?” John asked. “That’s a question no one really has an answer to. What is, or was normal? We know a-lot from studies but there are certain things that don’t add up. It’s also hard to determine exactly what conditions were here two or three thousand years ago. How many salmon where there, really? I’m sure even the Native Americans had conversations about the good old days.”
Les got up and walked to the kitchen sink, looking down at the slimy northern pike and whistling a tune that sounded like a polka song. “You know this fish is an incredible hunter” Les said. “Really?” He pointed to the fish’s dorsal fin. “You see it sits very still in the water by fanning the rays on the back of the dorsal fin, that in combination with a little stability from these pectoral fins, and it waits in the tall grass seemingly motionless and stealthy. Then when a bait fish swims by, it bends in the middle and with that wide tail fin it pushes itself like an arrow under water and darts out seizing the prey, quite amazing actually.” “Is that why they call them water wolves?” John asked. “I hadn’t actually heard them called that but it seems appropriate. I have a couple recipes for these things you might like, we could make fish cakes and fry them up.” “That sounds good to me, I’ve always loved crab cakes.” “Well I can’t promise they will taste like crab meat, but I think you will like them.” “I heard they are as bony as pickerel.” John said. “Well they have fork bones in them over the back bone, but there is a way of cutting them out without wasting too much meat, we call it the five piece fillet method.” “O.K, let’s see.” John said. Les grabbed a big cutting board from the cupboard and set it on the counter, then put the pike on it. He started sharpening his old fillet knife with a steel and asked John to grab the empty plastic bucket from the back porch. When John returned to the kitchen sink Les started processing the pike. He placed the fish on it’s belly and made a cut just behind the head and gill plates down to the back bone, then went down the back just ahead of the dorsal fin and made a cut down to the spine. Starting back at the first cut, behind the head, he ran his knife down over the spine holding the edge up at a slight angle just over the tip of the fork bones while rubbing the back bone with the back of the knife. This rendered a boneless piece of meat. He then put the fish on it’s side, slicing off the two sides from behind the dorsal fin all the way down to the tail. Then, while the fish was still on it’s side, he found the edge of those fork bones and worked his skinny fillet knife down to the top of the ribs slowly separating the meat from the rib cage down to the belly meat. That made five cuts of meat that had no bones to deal with. He then ran the knife between the slimy skin and meat on each piece and threw the rack of bones and skin into the empty plastic bucket. “That looked easy enough.” John said. Les then started heating up his cast iron fry pan with a little butter to cook up those fresh chanterelle mushrooms. Once those were done and set aside, he put a little fresh oil in the pan to, as he put it, “whiten the fish.” He gathered a few items from his pantry including breadcrumbs and a bag of rice which he started preparing in a separate pot. The other ingredients where from the old refrigerator: butter, one egg, mustard, mayonnaise, onion, fresh chives from the garden, and a little salt and pepper. All went into a glass bowl on the counter. Once the fish and rice where cooked he mixed everything together and made a half dozen small patties. Putting fresh butter in the fry pan he cooked the patties for a few minutes on each side, the whole process took around thirty minutes. There was also a makeshift steamer on the back burner preparing some fresh green beans from the garden, and Les had bought a loaf of fresh bread on his way home that afternoon.
The two sat down at the table and enjoyed the fish cakes. John was surprised how good the pike tasted, and was delighted to have something with spices and flavor. The chanterelle mushrooms were delicious along with the fresh green beans and bread, complete with hand churned butter. John knew he was becoming obsessed with food so this was a real treat for him. “That didn’t take long,” Les said as he looked at John’s empty plate. “Yeah, they were delicious.” Les got up and filled both cups with coffee and pushed his unfinished plate aside. “I suppose we have to get that fly rod set up for you so you can start catching some good eating fish.” John looked covetously at Les’s remaining fish cake. “I would be just fine eating bass and pike for the rest of my life.” “Oh that’s good because catch and release of brook trout is highly encouraged around here.” “Why is that, exactly.” “Well for a few reasons, but mostly because the trout have such a hard time competing for food with bass and these northern pike. Speaking of competition, why don’t you finish my last fish cake.” John was happy to clean the rest of the plate as Les talked about brook trout. “When a trout reaches three pounds these days its almost a miracle.” “is it just because of the lack of food for them?” John asked. “That’s part of it, along with warmer water temperatures and dams that prevent them from retreating to those colder places in the rivers they went to hundreds of years ago. They managed to hang on through the straightening and dynamiting of river banks to push logs through, but the water temperatures and lack of forage fish are making it almost impossible for them to survive.” “But the bass and pike can survive and eat the small trout along with everything else.” John said. “Yeah. that’s pretty much the concern of most trout and salmon enthusiasts these days. Again, back to the re-stocking programs, if it wasn’t for those efforts, there probably wouldn’t be any trout left.” “Yeah I’m getting the picture.” John said. “So did you pick up that fly line I mentioned you would need?” Les asked. “I did in fact.” “Good, tomorrow we can string up the old five weight and get you started. You can practice out back on the lawn to get the feel of it.” “That sounds good to me.” John said.
The next morning Les was up early, as usual, and had the fly rod broken down in two pieces sitting on the kitchen table. He had started a breakfast of eggs, toast, and ham steaks. The coffee was bubbling away and filled the house with it’s aroma. They ate breakfast and went out to start setting up the fly rod. Les set everything down on the open tail gate of his pick up truck and tied one end of the new fly line onto the reel. He already had “backing line” on the fly reel to avoid having unnecessary fly line on the reel. These two lines were tied together with a “nail knot.” Out of his bag of goodies, Les retrieved some leader material that was to be attached to the fly line. Les said he liked the leader, in this case, to be around eight to nine feet long because of the particular rod length. The leader can be joined by loop knots, but Les preferred another nail knot because he felt it was smoother. John was already confused and Les still wasn’t done. The last thing to be added was a “tippet” which was attached to the leader with a “double surgeons” knot. The tippet was about two feet long and the actual fly is tied to the end of it. Les explained the reason for different thicknesses in tippets depends on the fly, water clarity, and the size of the fish you are catching. In dirty water you can use a heavier tippet, whereas in clear water you want a thinner tippet, so as not to spook the fish. The thinner the tippet the less unnatural drag on the fly, therefore, making a better presentation. Les felt a “five X” tippet would be adequate for the fish they were after. Over the course of the day the tippet should be replaced as new flies are tied on. Les tied a small piece of yarn where the fly usually goes to eliminate the chance of John hooking himself in the eye while practicing. Les tied the amount of yarn that would match what he called a “one eyed poacher” fly. He said this would work on trout, salmon, and even small mouth bass. John laughed when he heard the name, but liked saying it. “Ha, the one eyed poacher, I love it!” “Oh its a dandy for sure. Now when you try and cast it out, let the rod do the work. That’s the best advice I can give anyone. There are many things to consider when selecting a fly rod. Rod sizes, and weights are all key to your fishing situation. Wind can also be a huge factor. Line is another variable depending on current, fly size, and the fish you are going after. Les also pointed out that each part of this assembly, the line, leader, and tippet all work as a system. If you remove one of these pieces, the system won’t work. The line is heavy and will propel the rod, you should “feel the load” as the rod flexes back and forth. This is something that takes getting used to. The last variable is the choice of fly you are presenting to the fish; this is the thing most people get flustered with and, in my opinion, waste time trying to figure out. I suggest you stick with three flies to begin with, a dry fly, a nymph, and a streamer. The streamer is easier to learn but the purists insist that the true zen of fly fishing can only be experienced by making a fish rise to bite a dry fly. The nymphs are tricky but effective. There are many opinions and practices and nothing teaches you better than experience. If you ask three people what is the best fly for salmon you will get three different answers. The best thing you can do is just start fishing.
John walked to the middle of the yard and felt some nervousness in his stomach. He had Les standing there watching him and he had no idea what to do. Les explained he needed to keep his wrist locked and his elbow close to his side. The idea was to rock back and forth with the rod, like a clocks’s pendulum between ten and two o’clock, the whole time peeling off line, to get the his fly further and further out in front of him. This is how you cast in a pond or out in the river when you have ample room and the repeated casting imitates a bug before it lands on the water. There was plenty of room on the back lawn but John had line wrapped around his head within three swipes of the rod. It seemed impossible to coordinate all these things together and have any accuracy whatsoever. How could anyone find this relaxing? He made several attempts but couldn’t get the line out past twenty feet. Les told him that he wasn’t letting the rod flex enough and was trying to rush it. The other thing he couldn’t seem to do was keep his wrist from bending, and that prevented the rod from flexing as it was supposed to. Les told him to keep at it and went inside to go over his monthly bills and write checks. John managed to keep from getting tangled in the fly line again, but felt more like he was trying to fight his way out of a paper bag than anything else. He couldn’t imagine ever being able to catch a clever fish with this outfit.